Mentorships: The First Step to Career Success

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As a Human Resources professional, I often find myself reminding my employees that everyone is responsible for their own career development. In book publishing especially, I think this advice is crucial for success. Publishing careers typically start out on an “apprenticeship” track: you work for one manager in a specific department within an imprint or genre. This setup often limits your exposure to other roles and opportunities at your company and doesn’t allow you to take advantage of learning from talented managers, leaders, and executives outside your group. However, you can create growth and learning opportunities on your own, starting with finding a good mentor.

Mentorships (whether formal or informal) are an easy and rewarding way to build new relationships that can assist you in your career development. Mentors typically provide mentees with fresh ideas, corporate insights, better networking and navigation skills, and suggestions on growth opportunities that you may not have thought of. As a result, many mentees find that during the course of their mentorships they begin to gain confidence in their daily work and additional job satisfaction as they pursue their career.

If you are interested in developing a mentor relationship, I recommend taking the following steps:

1) Brainstorm possible mentors. When thinking about an ideal mentor, first ask yourself what skills you would like to acquire or develop and whether you want a mentor in your department or in another one. Sometimes, a mentor in a different area can offer a creative perspective or provide a new set of skills. Then identify people you admire in your organization, especially individuals you believe would also make good teachers, coaches, or advocates for you in the long term.

2) Speak with your manager about wanting a mentor. I often suggest this step because you will likely need your manager’s approval if you plan to meet with your mentor during working hours. In addition, you want your manager to understand that you view a mentor relationship as a professional growth opportunity. State that you hope to gain valuable knowledge and ideas that can, in turn, benefit your work and be shared with the rest of your group. Finally, if you have a good relationship with your manager, you may want to ask them for a list of possible mentors who might be a good fit for you.

3) Speak with your Human Resources department. Your publishing house may already have a formal mentoring program in place. If so, you will certainly want to get information about it and how to sign up from your HR department, which often runs these programs. If there is no formalized mentoring program, identify a possible mentor and approach that individual personally. When soliciting someone as a mentor, be sure to talk about not only what you wish to gain from the experience, but also how you hope it will be mutually advantageous. Many mentors benefit from the opportunity because they can practice their coaching and listening skills and can hear a fresh perspective on the work and the industry.

4) Set up an initial meeting with your mentor. First meetings should be relatively short and should accomplish four things. First, use this opening discussion to get to know each other better. Talk about your roles in the organization, personal hobbies and interests, your learning and teaching styles, and any other relevant information that will help you build a rapport. Second, discuss your expectations and goals for the relationship. Explain to your mentor what you hope to learn and how you will know if expectations are being met. Also be sure to ask them what, if anything, they’d like to accomplish. Third, and most important, work out the logistics: the frequency, length, and location of your meetings; the duration of the mentorship; and the level of confidentiality you both expect. Last, establish who is accountable for what in the relationship, i.e. who is responsible for scheduling the meetings and picking discussion topics. Ideally, the accountability should lie with the mentee. One piece of advice: Do not wait a significant amount of time between your first and second meetings. A second meeting scheduled shortly after the first one indicates that you enjoyed your initial interactions and proves that you are invested in building the mentorship. Also, first meetings are rarely as productive as second meetings because mentor and mentee usually aren’t fully comfortable opening up to each other yet. If too much time lapses between meetings, most of the bonding created in the first meeting will dissipate.

5) Brainstorm for your future meetings. After you’ve successfully completed your first meeting, think about future conversations and always prepare topics of discussion. Common subjects tend to center around career planning, time management, corporate navigation and politics, managerial feedback, etc. In addition to topics of discussion, think about activities you and your mentor can do. For example, when it comes to career planning, consider sharing your performance review with your mentor and soliciting his/her opinion on the feedback you received. Or you can practice delivering presentations with your mentor to help you build your confidence for when you’ll need to present something on the job. Another option, if your mentor and your boss are comfortable with it, is attend each others’ meetings and see how each of you acts in a business situation and then discuss what you observed at a later meeting.

I hope you find these steps helpful in starting a mentoring relationship. Someone once said that mentoring is great because “a lot of people have gone further than they thought they could because someone else thought they could.” Those words still motivate me today, and I hope they’ll inspire you too, as you take charge of your own career development. Perhaps in taking advantage of mentorships, you’ll one day become a mentor yourself and pay it forward.

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